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How Should I Plan a Lesson Around Teaching Polite Phrases?

Maureen St. George

English seems like an increasingly informal language, what with the lack of differentiation between the formal and informal ‘you,’ and with the relaxed approach to spoken and written English, especially from the US. This lack of formality can help ease students into the language, but there’s a time and place for polite and formal language, and sometimes it can be difficult to get students off the easy route of informality. In fact, it may require completely changing their surroundings.


How Do We Teach Formal English?
For complete saturation, teachers can require that students only use indirect questions throughout the whole lesson, and refer to everyone as “ma’am” or “sir.” This will probably slow down the pace of the class, since students may have to mentally remind themselves what to do before speaking, but this is beneficial. The slower pace lets students fully form their thoughts before speaking and may lead to better self-correction. Also, having everyone under the same instructions and speaking guidelines is great news for repetition practice.

There’s a time and place for polite and formal language, and sometimes it can be difficult to get students off the easy route of informality.

The various ways to word indirect questions tend to take up a lot of class time, so it’s best to set aside a chunk of time dedicated to practicing these phrases if students aren’t well-acquainted with them. Going through each one with the class with plenty of examples and repetition is ideal. Also giving students several situations like finding the bathroom, asking for clarification, etc. and having them come up with a suitable indirect question is a good pair activity. It’s also a good base for writing short dialogues if time allows. Make sure to go over “may I/would you/could you” forms as well and if extra practice is needed, have the class listen to audio dialogues of people making formal and informal requests.

Role Play
If possible, turn the classroom into an environment where polite conversation is needed, such as a restaurant, shop or office. The setting lends itself well to several exercises, including reviewing applicable vocabulary, figuring out what phrases the customer, server, and host in the restaurant would say, and asking students about the last time they went to one of these settings and what their conversation was like. This sets the scene for a role play.
The teacher can hand out an example role play to each pair or group to practice with (again, great for repetition). After acting it out for the class, or the teacher has walked around and checked in with each group, students can form new groups. If the classroom is set up as a restaurant, students can choose a corresponding role, and the groups can write a short dialogue using a certain number of indirect phrases about waiting for a table, taking an order or responding to a problem with the food.


To make the dialogue writing go smoothly, it may be best to be specific with the guidelines, down to how many lines to write, how many indirect phrases to use, and others based on the level of the class. Taking the time to decorate a few tables in the classroom exports students’ minds to a more real-world setting and thus a more real-world response to a situation they will likely find themselves in again.

Going on a field trip to a restaurant or asking students to go to one and report back for homework is a great extension, but of course may not be totally feasible. If it’s not, another way to make the classroom setting more of a real-world one is to bring in other teachers or the principal for a short visit so students can practice formal English with someone they don’t know so well, and therefore more polite English would be warranted.
These are just a few simple ideas to teach your students about formal and informal questions. Do you have any to add to this list? Let us know in the section below!

About the author

Maureen is a US-born, Hong Kong-based freelance editor and writer who has taught ESL all over the world. Traveling is her main hobby, and there's nothing she enjoys more than having a carefully planned trip go completely awry.